Is money really what makes the world go ’round? Or is it that special gravitation we call desire? Desire—whether for fortune, fame, possessions, beauty, sex and love, even the desire to conquer desire—is a powerful motivator. Religions have advised against and for desire, advertisers exploit it, and poets and pop balladeers sing its praises and rue its vicissitudes. We are pushed and pulled by desire’s demands—which can make them downright undesirable.
In his first sermon, the enlightened Buddha preached the Four Noble Truths, which became Buddhism’s core tenets. The first truth, in a nutshell, is that life is dukkha (a hard-to-translate word often rendered as “suffering”); the second is that the origin of dukkha lies in craving—the constant craving of impermanent beings (i.e., everybody) for things that are unsatisfyingly impermanent. Tough words, since from a Buddhist perspective the self is nothing more than an illusion constructed of cravings. Take away desire, and you’re left with no self.
You may disagree with this philosophy, but even a non-Buddhist will admit that humans’ hard-wired propensity for desiring makes us easy prey for advertisers and others eager to manipulate us. So easy, in fact, that we can be motivated by signals we aren’t even conscious of receiving. Truly subliminal stimuli are images and sounds below the threshold of perception, allegedly often used in advertising to link an otherwise unsexy product with sex. Whether they always influence behavior is debatable, but people can be seduced by an array of barely less subtle messages—from product placements in TV programs to the deceptive “dog whistle” phrases ideologue politicians use to appeal to their true believers.
What do you desire when you desire another? For Aristophanes—the Greek comic playwright Plato uses as a character in the Symposium, his dialogue about love—erotic desire results from each person’s longing for the lost half of his or her original whole self. (For a quick refresher on Aristophanes’s fairy tale, listen to “The Origin of Love,” from John Cameron Mitchell’s musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch.) For contemporary neuroscientists like Larry Young, coauthor of The Chemistry Between Us (2012), the subliminal seductions we respond to are biochemical and hormonal messages, inaccessible to consciousness, that tug one person toward another. But there are other possibilities, including this: We simply do not know. That seems to be the view expressed in Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire. This puzzling film centers on an old man (played by Fernando Rey) who falls head over heels for a young woman who strings him along endlessly, never consenting to the sex he so ardently wants. The puzzle? She is alternatingly played by two very unlike women (Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina). For Buñuel, the true object of desire—with no definite physical correlative—seems so obscure as to be inexplicable.
To crib from the Rolling Stones, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find…you still can’t get it. Desire, however, won’t always take no for an answer, and one of the curiouser aspects of psychology is that being spurned can intensify a lover’s passion rather than extinguish it. We all know this—from personal experience or the testimony of countless lyric poems, pop songs and other works of art, high and low. Mathieu, the main character in Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, endures a never-ending prick tease from the target of his ardor, yet he always returns for more refusals. Buñuel’s film is a comedy (albeit dark), but perpetually unrequited love lends itself more naturally to discomfiting tales of the madness into which the incurably lovesick can sink. Anjelica Huston’s Dolores in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) is one such lunatic, willing to ruin herself and her beloved because he won’t leave his wife. Charlize Theron’s deluded Mavis in Jason Reitman’s underappreciated Young Adult (2011) is another. But neither can hold a self-immolating candle to the title character (played by Isabelle Adjani) of François Truffaut’s Story of Adele H.
The philosophy embodied in Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths (basically, that one should wish to escape suffering born of desire) has no connection with the idea that the suffering caused by unrequited longing may itself be pleasurable—or somehow even virtuous. But the paradoxical idea that unrelieved desire for the unattainable can be emotionally rewarding, even admirable, is a literary commonplace. You can find it in popular songs—the broken-hearted “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (by Don Gibson, 1958) is one example; the chivalrous “Impossible Dream” (from the 1965 musical Man of La Mancha) is another. You can find it in novels ranging from Jane Eyre (though Jane ultimately gets her man, she’s more than willing to love him hopelessly) to—more queerly—Jean Genet’s semiautobiographical novel The Miracle of the Rose (1946), in which the narrator’s unconsummatable yearning for a condemned murderer is spiritually sustaining. It’s an idea director François Truffaut takes to an extreme in The Story of Adele H., whose protagonist is driven to abject madness by her one-way passion. The brilliance of the movie lies in Truffaut’s conferring a sort of creepy heroism on Adele, whose idée fixe causes nothing but pain for herself and others.
That human beings can go crazy when reality doesn’t succumb to their desire isn’t just the stuff of fiction. Many a real-life stalker lives dangerously possessed by the idea that the person he’s so psychically attached to will, if pressed long and hard enough, eventually come around. And not all such erotomaniacs are men: Truffaut’s Story of Adele H. is based on the true story of French writer Victor Hugo’s daughter Adèle, who, undeterred by multiple rejections, pursued British army officer Albert Pinson from the Channel Islands to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then to Barbados, where she withdrew into complete, wretched insanity.
But there’s soul-stripping masochism, and then there’s bodice-ripping masochism lite. The story of Adele’s suffering for love is deeply disturbing; the story of virginal Anastasia Steele’s growing love (or at least tolerance) for physical suffering—as recounted in E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels—is mildly titillating. That’s not bad, of course; it’s just that one wonders about the fuss over this latter-day Cinderella story (as New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley describes the Fifty Shades novels). Perhaps it will lead fans to harder stuff by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and the Marquis de Sade.
Literature about female sadomasochism is nothing new—nor are stories written by women that put female characters on the pleasurably receiving end of the domination-submission contract. What was until recently the best-known such tale, Story of O by Pauline Réage (pseudonym of Anne Desclos), was first published in France in 1954. But that book has usually been read furtively (and mostly by men). Not until the publication of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy did mainstream fiction celebrating (well, sort of) a woman’s desire for sexual humiliation target female readers. Earning the nickname “mommy porn,” James’s series has sold tens of millions of copies worldwide.
Certain forms of sexual desire, however, remain unlikely to be treated with commendation, or even tolerance, in books or films created for a general audience (as opposed to a sexual subculture). Pedophilia doubtless tops that sordid list. Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education is the rare work that treats its pedophile villain compassionately, seeing him as a tragic figure—a monster held captive by his obsession.
The Roman Catholic Church has a maddening relationship with sex and sexual desire. There are, of course, all the prohibitions (against masturbation, extramarital sex, etc.), but those punitive, premodern thou-shalt-nots have at least the virtue of consistency. The contradictions in church doctrine and practice can be more incensing. A church that venerates the mother of Christ, canonizes women and has even elevated three female saints—including the ecstatic Teresa of Ávila—to the exalted status of doctors of the church still forbids the ordination of women. More agonizingly twisted is the well-documented history of the widespread, systematic protection by the Catholic Church—which requires chastity of its clergy and condemns homosexual desire as a “tendency ordered toward an inherent moral evil”—of priests guilty of molesting children (mostly boys). That institutional hypocrisy and the long-term damage wrought by priestly sexual abuse are subjects of Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education, which provides a glimpse inside the troubled but calculating mind of a priest, the principal of a Catholic boys’ school, who convinces himself that the abuse he perpetrates on his favorite student is a gesture of true love. It is one of the Spanish director’s most emotionally ravaging tales.
The Buddha’s Second Noble Truth posits that craving brings suffering. Not all religions take such an uncompromisingly negative view. Hinduism has, as one route to salvation, the practice of bhakti yoga (“yoga of devotion”), which involves passionately desiring union with a divine lover. Belonging to this rapturous tradition are the Gita Govinda of the 12th-century South Asian poet Jayadeva, a Krishna devotee, and the love songs to the god Shiva composed by his contemporary, the female poet-saint Mahadeviyakka. The mystical strand of Islam known as Sufism embraces the idea—voiced by 13th-century Persian poet Rumi—that the soul yearns like a lover for union with God. Nor is this tendency always latent in Judeo-Christian religions: In the Hebrew scriptures, the erotically charged Song of Songs is read allegorically as expressing the mutually desirous relation between God and Israel or, by Christians, between Christ and his church. And in Catholicism, wanting to be ravished—painfully yet delectably penetrated by the fiery spear of the love of God—is essential to the spirituality of Saint Teresa of Ávila. Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s dizzyingly erotic marble sculpture The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1652) testifies to her having achieved the consummation she so devoutly wished.
Christianity has made a hard bargain with sexual desire, permitting its fulfillment only within marriage. And even that’s a compromise: Saint Paul thought chastity holier but grudgingly allowed that, for those lacking self-control, “it is better to marry than to burn” with lust. Lust—sinful fleshly desire—is one of the Seven Deadly Sins codified by Christian writers over the centuries and put to use by Dante Alighieri in the concentric architecture of his Inferno, where sinners guilty of lust are assigned to hell’s second circle. Most tragic are Paolo and Francesca, a brother- and sister-in-law who get all heated up while reading together, fall into each other’s arms (“That day we read no more,” says Francesca) and are discovered and killed by Francesca’s husband. Dying impenitent, they are condemned to be buffeted by fierce winds for eternity.
Luckily, lust can be sublimated—or, depending on your view, rechanneled to a higher purpose. Some mystical Christian writings are noisy with desirous moans directed heavenward: English poet John Donne’s 17th-century sonnet “Batter my heart, three person’d God” is one, but none outperforms Saint Teresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle (1577), which climaxes in her “spiritual marriage” with God, her King.